Cat Country

24 04 2010

Mao Chengji 《猫城记》, which translates literally to “journal of cat city” but is more commonly rendered as Cat City or Cat Country, is a weird little piece of science fiction and satire by Chinese modernist Lao She, an author better known for his realist depictions of Beijing street life. Lao She himself never much liked Cat Country, as he apparently saw himself as a humorist rather than a satirist (the humorist having an essentially warmer view of life); it’s an odd thing to hear, since Rickshaw Boy, one of his more prominent novels, is an incredibly bleak account of a young man’s descent from idealism into drunken, decrepit starvation. It’s like “Born in the USA” for China.

I can understand his reasons for not liking Cat Country, however. It’s not a particularly subtle book–it pretty straightforwardly recreates China as a country of cat people on Mars, complete with opium (or reverie leaves), Imperial history (Cat Country’s long, but useless, history), and the Chinese modernist movement (a group of young cats who emulate foreigners and have casual liasons with female cats.) Lao She had no love for Chinese society, nor, as a former teacher, for its educational system. The following is from the William Lyell, Jr. translation of Cat Country:

When the new educational system first went into effect, our schools were divided into a number of levels like any other country’s, and the students had to start at the bottom and work their way up, one step at a time, through a system of examinations before they could be graduated. But in the course of two hundred years of improvement and advancement, we gradually did away with examinations! Any student who put in the required time could graduate when the time came regardless of whether or not he attended classes. However, there remained, of course, a status inequality between a primary school graduate and a university graduate. Now, since we didn’t require either primary school students or university students to attend classes, why should anyone be satisfied with second best? Therefore we decided on a thoroughgoing innovation: anyone who went to school would be counted as a university graduate on the first day of classes. Let him graduate first, and then…come to think of it, since he has already graduated, there is no ‘and then.’

Actually, this was the best of all possible systems for Cat Country. You see, statistically we have the highest number of university graduates of any country on Mars.

There are many similarities between Cat Country and the works of the better-known Lu Xun, but in this book, Lao She is, if anything, even more pessimistic than Lu. There is no hope for the cat people: They are degenerate within and without, and the only ones who can see the ugliness of their system are too disillusioned to do anything but waste their lives in an Epicurean bacchanal. And everyone eats reverie leaves.

The heavy-handed sarcasm isn’t just in the translation. The last lines of Cat Country, in the original Chinese [spoilers implied], read:

我会在一座小山裹遇见了十几个逃串来的猫人,这座小山是还未被矮兵占据的唯一的地方;不到三天,这十几个避难的互相争吵打 闹,已经打死一半。反至矮兵们来到山中,已经剩了两个猫人,大概就是猫国最后的两个活人。敌人到了,他们两个打得正不可开交。矮兵们没有杀他们俩,把他们 放在一个大裹,他们就在笼裹继续作战,真到两个人相互的咬死;这样,猫人们自己完成了他们灭绝。


[Graceless translation: In the hills, I could see ten or fifteen fleeing cat people, the mountain being the only place the soldiers had not yet reached; within three days, these refuge-seekers had begun to fight amongst themselves, and already half were dead. When the opposing army got to the mountain, the number had dwindled to two cat people, probably the last two in all of Cat Country. When the enemy came, they couldn’t separate the two. The soldiers didn’t kill them, but put them in a large bamboo cage, where they continued to fight, until the two had bitten each other to death; in that manner, the cat people completed their own extinction.

I stayed on Mars for another six months, and in the end was able to catch a ride on a French exploratory plane, and return to my great, glorious, and free China.]

On one hand, Lao She manages to express something that many people in China were feeling at the time, and, literary quibbles aside, he does it quite powerfully. This type of satire can encapsulate a period, and can offer comfort or even catalyze change. It can give people hope that they’re not the only ones who see a problem, and paint it in a way they couldn’t. It can also be necessary for circumventing censorship, something that’s done quite often in the PRC. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but wonder to what extent this kind of satire reifies a thing as being a certain way: By making China into Cat Country, Lao She makes China inherently degenerate, beyond hope. That’s the problem with allegory and comparison. Whenever you make something into another thing, you can’t help but simplify it.

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